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Good Social Skills May Have Helped Dogs Evolve

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 07, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013

If you think your dog understands your moods as well as your commands, you’re probably right. No other species has dogs’ capacity to read and respond to our communicative gestures or dogs’ child-like ability to learn word meanings, a canine researcher says.

Brian Hare is an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. He is also founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center. Hare and his wife, Vanessa Woods, co-authored a new book, "The Genius of Dogs."

In a Scientific American story by Gareth Cook, Hare explains that dogs’ ability to interpret our gestures to please us and get what they want makes them terrific social partners, whether the activity is hunting or just navigating everyday life. Further, he says, their ability to interpret "helps them solve problems they can’t solve on their own.”

Some veterinarians rate dog intelligence by how easy a breed is to train. Hare dismisses the idea that there are smart and dumb dogs. He says while people think dog intellect differs by breed, and different dogs and good at different things, the genetic differences are miniscule. Are dogs empathetic? Hard to say, because they can’t describe their feelings, Hare says. But he says research has found they get a boost of oxytocin, the love hormone, when humans hug and pet them. What about guilt? Hare says research by Alexandra Horowitz suggests dogs may react to an owner’s distress or disapproval rather than the idea they have sinned. And how did our loveable companions evolve from dangerous predatory wolves? Hare thinks friendliness just may have an evolutionary edge.

While research by Hare and others has found dogs generally are very good at learning meaning of words, they aren’t much good at spacial intelligence. In a Wired Magazine story by Greg Miller, Hare says dogs tend to get befuddled if their leash wraps around a tree, and they have trouble recognizing the physical limits of a leash.

Hare has launched a new company called Dognition. For a fee, you can find games and tasks that will produce a profile of your dog’s strengths and weaknesses. Hare told Wired that at the same time, you’ll be contributing to science because the social skills of dogs, which have in some ways exceeded those of our closest primate relatives, may have much to teach us about how our own social skills evolved. He also thinks research can help train dogs to better help people, such as the blind and disabled. He hopes information from a vast numbers of dogs world wide will further canine science. He conceded to Wired that it’s not conventional for participants in citizens’ science, which relies on collective action and crowdsourcing, to pay. He says people are paying for expertise and technology that provides dog owners a new way to find out about their own pets in their own homes.

In Wall Street Journal piece Hare and Woods write that while cats have twice as many neurons as dogs do in their cerebral cortex, they have nowhere near the social skills. If you’re convinced the special qualities of cats are under-rated, read Pam Belluck’s New York Times story about cats who have found their way home despite distance and hardship. The navigational skills involved have baffled scientists.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  connection  learning  relationships 

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